Three Tips for Working with Distracted Dogs
There are a bunch of approaches to handling reactive or distracted dogs. We use the STARR Protocol. It’s quite similar to, and borrows heavily from Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. Regardless of what methodology you use, here are three simple things you can do to become more successful with your reactive dog.
Repeat and Re-enter
If you have to work to make it into a room or situation with your reactive dog, once the dog is stable (meaning not bonkers), repeat the entry. Repeating the entry allows the dog to start the skill under threshold. You can get 5 reps of perfect entrances to 1 rep of lunacy. Giving the dog experience entering the room as a sane canine, under threshold and calm, cool and collected is a huge deal. It sets the tone for the rest of the session.
When guests come over and your dog finally settles down after 10 minutes, have them go out and come in again. They will enter into a situation where the dog is under threshold and already acclimated to people walking in. The greeting will go much smoother. It’s not hard to get a 5 to 1 perfect to imperfect practice ratio using simple repetition.
Problems getting out of the car or getting out of the front door? Just repeat your schtick.
Help your dog experience success in tough situations. Repeat rough entrances and introductions to tough environments.
Nothing Says Chill Like a Silent Cookie
Positive trainers are really awesome at shaping creating behaviors and promoting action, but we’re generally pretty bad at reinforcing a calm state of being. Always marking and reinforcing the criteria of elbows hitting the ground in the case of a down, or a hip flop for a down, can have your dog ping ponging between stand and down or flopping around like a fish. Calm is not an action packed activity.
Look at That, Attention, Down, Head Down, Hip Flop, or whatever actionable criteria you reinforce to create calm becomes an active behavior to get reinforcement; a competing interest with the distraction or trigger stimulus. We keep the dog busy with these behaviors and use them to desensitize the dog.
But there comes a time when we need to stop working and start chilling out or the dog will learn to bounce around from behavior to behavior and expect a high rate of reinforcement. If they don’t get reinforcement they look for alternatives or get frustrated. The reason that most people can’t stop working their reactive dogs is that the dogs are conditioned to perform actions and receive a high rate of reinforcement in the presence of the distraction. That’s what they expect.
You don’t have to mark to give a cookie!
Once you get your dog stable in the presence of the distraction, you need to shift to reinforcing a calm state of being, not more action. This means not marking the moment of the look at that, or the immediate hook up with eye contact. Instead you want to wait for actual calm and inaction and then drop a silent cookie on it.
If your dog is lying quietly, or standing their calm and cool, keep your mouth shut, and reach down and pay him.
Dismiss for Proofing
Another thing that is missing from the reactive dog trainers toolbox is a tool to proof your dog’s performance in the presence of the trigger of their reactivity. We use Dismissal.
Once the dog is stable and capable of handling the environment and you feel pretty good about where you guys are at, dismiss the dog, “Go Do Dog Stuff…” You, the handler, are now off limits to the dog. The dog can do anything they want except for work with you. This will be quite confusing for the dog. They’ll stick around and work the heck out of you giving you all the things you’ve been working. You will ignore it. The dog will then start to investigate the environment on their own.
Now is your chance to see where your training has gotten you. Resist the urge to recall the dog. Only recall in an emergency. Just observe and capture behaviors you like to see. Mark and reinforce active behaviors like “the decision to not get on the table” or “putting 4 on the floor after being on the table” or “looking away from a distraction”… things like that. Use this excuse to bring him back into a game with you, get him high on working with you, then dismiss. Rinse & Repeat. This will build value for you and for the behaviors you reinforce.
You can set your criteria at whatever level you want and can adjust it, on the fly, as the situation plays out. If another dog is being added to the situation, you can reduce your criteria to something really simple, like Look at That. Lots of times when the situation changes, you’ll need to find an excuse to mark and reinforce to get your dog back on track.
On the calm side, you can capture different states of calm and pay with Silent Cookies to reinforce that state of being. The state of laying down, the state of standing calmly, or the state of sniffing the ground. When you see these behaviors going on, walk over and pay your dog.
Dismissal can happen on Leash. It means “the handler is off Limits” not “leave the handler”.
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